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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, at American Public University
In our online courses, students are often asked to write a short paper on a case study, a current event or a research topic. While most instructors are not English majors or hold degrees in creative nonfiction writing, we still must edit and correct their weekly papers. We also offer guidance on writing styles.
Experience shows me that most professors do not critically edit their students’ writing or offer much writing style guidance. This practice often causes confusion for students when they encounter professors who do care about their students’ writing and go out of their way to coach and mentor their writing performance.
If you teach, how many times have you edited, graded and made constructive comments to students, only to be told by them that after five years of attending the university you are the only teacher who has helped them understand how to write? They thank you for the guidance.
In another all-too-common situation, students are shocked by your critical comments of their writing. They tell you that all of their previous professors have given their papers ‘A’ grades. They protest and comment: “How dare you give me an ‘F’ for plagiarism? No one else has given me that grade in all my years at the university.”
As an Instructor, What Is Your Typical Approach to Grading Students’ Writing?
How do you approach student papers? There are three basic steps.
One step is to first scan student papers for grammar and spelling errors when the Microsoft Word spelling and grammar checker points them out. Then you scan the paper from top to bottom for quotation marks and citations in the proper citation style.
After that, you read the paper for content to see if it meets the requirements of the assignment. While doing these three steps, do you mark a copy of the grading rubric provided for the class to indicate a numerical score and whether or not the paper meets the proper format and grammar?
Coaching Students to Produce Their Best Writing
But what do you do when students do not meet the writing standards expected of college students? What if their papers and essays are written like some high school or elementary school paper? Do you then coach those students to improve their writing skills?
I once asked a journalism professor and editor of a daily newspaper how she grades college papers. Her answer was that she uses a three-step process.
She first reads the paper and marks spelling and grammar errors. The second read is to see if the paper’s topic flows – that it reads well. The paper is then returned to the student without a grade. After all the mistakes are corrected and the paper is returned to her, she reads it a third time to judge whether it is worthwhile to publish in her newspaper or to earn that “A” grade.
The first approach is a static and linear process between student and teacher. The student sends the teacher a paper. The teacher reads, edits and grades the paper. The teacher posts the grade rubric, a numerical score from 0 to 100% along with the marked-up paper. The process ends.
The second approach is similar to the first, but it is not static or linear. It is dynamic and involves feedback between the student and teacher – it becomes a collaboration process.
Both types of writing instruction result in teachers becoming accidental writing coaches. However, comparing these two approaches to grading college papers reveals one major difference. The first approach involves simply grading the paper; the second approach actively involves the teacher and the student to create a proper “A” paper, which may even be publishable.
How Should We Teach Students to Write Their Papers or Essays?
If you are going to be a teacher, you sign on for more than teaching logistics or retail management, business administration or accounting. Teachers often correct students for things outside the areas that they teach. For example, if you see a grammatical error in a student discussion forum, a good and dedicated teacher will not let that mistake go uncorrected.
Online Instructors Are Especially Likely to Become Accidental Writing Coaches
As an online teacher, you are likely to become an accidental writing coach. You read and grade papers. But do you help struggling students who are weak writers? How far should you go to help them learn to write better?
Today, we are accustomed to quick, brief forms of communication. There is the impact of Twitter, where a tweet message must be no longer than 140 characters (about 35 words and spaces). Tweets from the White House about Congress or topics of the day are routine.
Your students are also adept at Twitter writing. Often, there are examples of less formal “short-hand” writing in their discussion board musings. Do tweets and other similar sites affect students’ ability to write a clear, coherent essay? It seems so.
Has Modern Communication Affected Students’ Writing Style?
Technology and business author Nicholas Carr wrote in an October 2017 Wall Street Journal article that the average person uses “Twitter about 80 times a day.” Carr notes that multiple research reports indicate the iPhone and Twitter cause our brains to be “dependent on the technology” and that “research suggests, the intellect weakens.”
Carr also indicates that people’s “reasoning and performance” is impeded by modern technology. While we as teachers pride ourselves on our ability to teach and harness the power of students’ critical thinking, this research indicates that constant Twitter and iPhone dependency “can diminish such vital mental skills as learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.”
It is time to rethink how we advise our students faced with writing a 3,000 to 5,000-word paper in today’s age of 35-word tweets. Perhaps the problem is that students today struggle to read more than 35 words at a sitting or write more than 35 words at any one time.
Instructors Must Help Students to Become Accustomed to Long-Form Writing
A college paper demands a certain pace and the rate of word creation, while a tweet, text or other type of rapid messaging demand other paces and speeds. Basically, our students are walking when they should be sprinting.
Instructors are asking those students to increase that pace and continuous flow of words, when each student’s reality says stop, slow down and walk. Maybe that is why there is also a rise in student papers that appear to be plagiarized or purchased from other sources.
Contrasts between Military and Civilian Students’ Writing
When I was starting out in my professional career, a senior government official told me the two secrets of being promoted. He said learn to speak in front of a group of 5,000 strangers at a conference. Second, learn how to write. It is this second lesson that inspires me to improve the writing form of our students, especially the military students.
Military students come to class ready to write, but not ready to give attribution or credit to previous facts or information. Writing a military field manual, for instance, does not involve having citations on each page. But learning how to write well impacts two sides of military students’ careers: the military one and the civilian one.
Civilian students also benefit from learning to craft a paper; they will need writing skill to propose a new solution to a company problem. Many people have been promoted not only for their ability to earn a degree, but by being able to articulate the key points of a problem and present a solution in a clear and concise manner.
Caution and Fact Checking Is Essential for Digital Writing
Today’s writers commonly have their writing on online sites, where it is subjected to peer review. When you publish a letter to the editor in a newspaper, for example, the online postings attract a following of critics and supporters for your viewpoint.
Similarly, writing on a blog, posting an article to LinkedIn or creating tweets means that your writing is exposed to the world. In the U.S. alone, that could be 300 million potential readers of your words. If you write something positive or negative about President Trump, for instance, you could create an international following of other writers and their ideas.
Teachers Becoming Both Accidental Writing Coaches and Coaches of Social Change
In life, we all become accidental coaches in many fields. When I became a Ph.D., for instance, my advisor told me I was now a professor and hired me to teach my first college course. She reminded me that my past 5 years in the classroom was sufficient to be a professor and teach, so I became a teacher.
Ultimately, today’s teachers will not only have to become accidental writing coaches, they also have to become accidental coaches of social change. Without that change, students will continue to struggle with their essays, academic papers and other long-form writing.
Get more information about degree programs at American Public University.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management Program as well as the Transportation and Logistics Management Program. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press.
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